Woman walking towards a barn

A brilliant blue sky envelops Helen Toomer. “I just have to show you where I am,” she gushes, though I recognise the grounds immediately. Storm King Art Center in New York’s Hudson Valley hosts a plethora of outdoor and indoor exhibits. Helen is here for the Creative Impact Conference and has taken some time to speak with me. First, she pans her phone further from her face towards a sculpture of great scale. Arlene Shechet’s Bea Blue looms behind Helen and is part of the newly-opened exhibition, Girl Group. She smiles at it as brightly as the sunshine, using the word “epic” for what will be the first time of many throughout our conversation.

Art has always been in both the background and foreground of Helen’s life. She’s widely known as the founder of Upstate Art Weekend, “a connective annual event, for residents and tourists alike, celebrating the cultural vibrancy of Upstate New York,” though her professional journey has been less like climbing a ladder and more akin to navigating a jungle gym. Growing up in the south of England, Helen pursued an art degree in Bournemouth but realised she “was a terrible artist but loved organising shows and bringing things together.” She ended up in London, where she first worked for – and fell deeper in love with – art fairs, but struggled to acclimatise. “I thought I would love it back then, but it was hard for a multitude of reasons,” she reflects. “Then I went travelling. There's always a break in between where I try to run away and see some of the world.” Helen was eventually offered a job launching another fair in New York. When she landed in the city for the three-month stint, something clicked. “I stepped out of that cab, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is my place.’ Our energies were akin.”

Woman in glasses and woman walking

After a few other twists and turns, Helen ultimately made her way back to New York more permanently and opened a small gallery in the Lower East Side, which proved to be a rewarding yet challenging venture. She eventually closed up shop and started working with more design fairs in New York and Miami, but soon found herself disillusioned. “I was getting too far away from the foundation of it all, which is the artists and the art.” On top of all of this, Helen was pursuing a different endeavour altogether: motherhood.

As she and her husband set their sights on buying a home and starting their family, the Hudson Valley called to them. Describing the same feeling she encountered upon moving to New York, Helen recalls discovering a barn that became their home and later, STONELEAF, a residency launched in 2017 that focuses on supporting women and families. “I'd always thought I would like to do a residency and work closer to artists again because that's what I loved at the gallery,” she shares. “It's an extension of our home. We’ve had over 50 artists and over a dozen families come through. It’s my happy place.” Here, Toomer had her son Harry in 2018 (which was, again, “epic”) and launched Art Mamas Alliance in late 2019 with her friend Katy Donoghue to bolster connection and community among creative parents.

Silhouette of a woman

“Upstate Art Weekend started during the pandemic as well. I was feeling so disconnected from people, and also realised how privileged my family was to be upstate, stewarding such beautiful land, and able to safely host people getting together. I woke up in June 2020 and said, ‘I’m doing this’.” The inaugural weekend launched with 23 participants and amassed a following of approximately 400 attendees. This year, the initiative has 145 participants “comprised of local arts organisations, galleries, museums, residencies and creative projects, mixed with temporary exhibitions and events staged especially for Upstate Art Weekend.” Helen is amazed at the continued interest in the region and its makers. “Just getting out of the city for me was a healing experience – from the very beginning.”

“I come from a family that's not ‘art-literate,’” Helen notes. “I was definitely the oddball. And I remember talking to my parents when they first came over and visited me in New York City. I was like, ‘We're going to an opening tonight.’ And my dad said, ‘What do I wear? I didn't bring a suit.’ I said he didn’t need to. But it’s that mindset that [art] is proper and not very welcoming. For me, that's not what art is.” In fact, Helen deems Upstate Art Weekend as the antithesis of industry pretence. “It's very welcoming. It's open physically and emotionally. The people who work at these places are happy that you've come to visit them. That's why I really value the people who are committed to coming to Upstate Art Weekend – because it is a commitment to drive, to catch a train, to visit.”

Woman in a hut and touching bark

These commitments also extend to the promotion and preservation of craft. “I'm definitely interested in connecting people with the variety and scope of making,” she says. “Upstate Art Weekend is a little bit outside of the box because it's not just museums, nonprofits, or galleries; it's artist studios, it's projects… I think there's something about claiming space and being able to go big up here and use different mediums.” But for Helen, defining craft and art can sometimes be tricky. “I see it all as the same. I see it all as creative. I think it's incredible to make something well, to make something with knowledge, to make something with love.”

In that vein, when I ask Helen what she thinks an artist is today, she considers the question carefully. “For me, an artist is someone who defines themselves as one. It's not up to me to put a definition on someone else. I think artists are like magic, beautiful, creative, stubborn, smart, slightly off-kilter people, the majority of whom I love.”

Woman by a door

She continues, “I'm at Storm King and having the best time. My soul, my body, and my heart are just so happy to be here. Not everybody's going to have that same reaction – and thank God we're not all the same! During Upstate Art Weekend, I love it when people really gravitate towards something that maybe I wouldn't have – then having the conversation about why. That's the beauty of it. We're in such a divisive time where you're right, or you're wrong. I think the beautiful thing about art is that it sparks conversation. There is no right or wrong. I like being in community, talking about that.”

The usually kinetic Helen has remained in front of Bea Blue for our entire call. When we hang up, I think about the commitment required to stop and truly see the potential in something; a piece of art, a place, a person. Helen’s work is the embodiment of this idea, and Shechet’s words on Storm King’s website suddenly take on new meaning: “They’re all in relationship to the landscape and to each other.” The sculptures, yes, but the people, too.

Upstate Art Weekend takes place 18 - 21 July.

Helen wears the TOAST Summer Camp Stripe Cotton Smock and Summer Camp Stripe Organic Cotton Shorts.

Words by Rachel Schwartzmann.

Photography by Sam Fleischner.

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